Harley Dirtster Project: Stage 1

For folks that made it to the Dragon Raid last fall, or the Garage Brewed Moto Show in January, you got a chance to see the Dirtster project in the flesh. As with Rosie the Scrambler and Andy’s Bonbler Project, I originally intended to document the Dirtster build months ago. Naturally, life happened, and the blog took the back seat for a few months there. Well, despite what Punxsutawney Phil says, it’s very much still winter here in Ohio, so here I am, finally circling back to “Ripley the Dirtster”.

Not long before penning the “planning” edition of this series, Jeff struck a deal on a 2003 Sportster XL883 he’d been keeping tabs on. If you’ve been following along on Instagram, we decided to pull the trigger on the Hugo Moto kit to land the key components for the build. There was a lot of beer involved, some pizza, and a few choice expletives, but in the two nights leading up to March Moto Madness, we successfully scrambled a Sportster.

The Hugo Moto World Tour Kit

Per comments above, if Jeff and I were going to scramble this Harley, we wanted a dirt machine that was more capable than my scrambler, while still “simple” in comparison to his KTM 990. Surfing the web, we studied multiple Sportster builds, the Carducci Sportster on ADV Rider, Burly Brand’s “Dirty Work“, and Biltwell’s “Frijole 883” to name a few. While there’s a vast sea of aftermarket parts available for the Sportster, it’s a little harder to find long-travel suspension and true “mid controls”. With that in mind, the bolt-on kit from Hugo Moto already included the critical components which made their kit the easiest route to dirt-fairing adventure machine for the former “bar hopper”.

So what’s in the kit? Jeff and I wanted the “Full Monty” from Hugo Moto, which included a suspension package with 7-inches of travel. Up front that meant a set of Andreani 39mm fork cartridges to drop into the stock Harley-Davidson fork tubes. There was a little grinding that had to happen to remove the stock fork innards, but that was pretty much the toughest part of the job to beef up the front end with fully adjustable front forks. On the back end, the “slammed” shocks were binned in lieu of a set of beefy EMC Twin Alu 2 Tri Tube 17.5-inch”rear shock absorbers. Again fully adjustable suspenders with 7-inches of travel, installation of the EMC bits was an easy bolt-on experience.

I think belt drive is still totally acceptable for most Scrambling duties, but when facing off against the finer parts of the Kentucky backcountry, the Hugo Chain Conversion kit was a must. To maintain the same gearing ratio as the stock belt/pulley system, Hugo’s conversion kit comes with a 22-tooth countershaft sprocket, a 520 chain, chain slider, and 51-tooth rear sprocket. Chains and sprockets obviously need wheels to turn, in the first generation Hugo Moto Kit, that was a set of Excel Takasago 18 and 21-inch Rims laced to Talon hubs. The new wheel set came with an adapter to attach the stock brake rotors and interface with the stock wheel spacers.

The foundation to the Hugo kit is actually their Peg Relocation Kit (PRK). While many refer to Sportster foot controls as “mids”, they’re still pretty far forward for aggressive off-road riding. The Hugo PRK puts your footing between the stock “mid” position and alternative Sportster rear-set options. The PRK comes with a shifter arm and all the linkage necessary to operate the shift lever from the rearward position. On the right side, the PRK relocates the rear brake reservoir assembly and re-uses the stock brake pedal. Once you have the PRK brackets bolted on to the case/frame, it’s just a matter of fitting the skid plate.

I often joke that a scrambler isn’t a scrambler without high pipes. Hugo Moto obviously shares my opinion, as they provide shotgun headers with hanger and heat shield with the kit. Our high-pipes were designed to use the stock Harley slip-ons. True to form, the Hugo kit also comes with fork boots, and a set of Biltwell 1-inch Tracker High handlebars to give the rider better leverage for off-road riding and complete the scrambler “look”.


More On Hugo Moto

When Jeff and I reached out to Hugo Moto, they were still very much in their infancy. It turns out we actually received the first kit that was shipped to a public. Like any small business, Hugo Moto has grown a lot over the past year; they’ve done a lot of market research, and have made various evolutions in their kits to better suit what customers are asking for. We bought the premium level “World Tour” kit last spring. Today Hugo Moto offers an a la carte menu for scrambling your Sportster. With exception of wheels, the parts listed above (or equivalent) are still available for your scrambler build (They also provide links to various wheel sources if you still want to upgrade your rims to more dirt friendly sizes). They now offer several different suspension options, along with accessories like luggage racks, high fender mounts, and seat risers. If you’re looking for a kit on par with the World Tour kit I described above, I suggest you take a peek at their HD2 Enduro kit; which was actually based on their 1200 Sporty that won the 2018 March Moto Madness hill climb. If you’re wanting to build your scrambler a piece at a time, or just make your bike a bit more gravel friendly, check out the different trim levels (stages) they offer for their “Scrambler Kit”.


Additional Bits

The Hugo Kit is a solid foundation; you can easily go from the parking lot of creek bed after a long day in the shop. That said, there are some stock Harley parts that would be better served elsewhere. The stock headlight on the 2003 Sporty is another anemic 5-3/4″ bowl akin to the feeble beam on my Triumph. That was rectified post-haste with an easy “drop-in” J.W. Speaker 8690 LED 5 headlight. I also hated the stock handgrips from go; I’m all about the stock H-D rubber grips for touring on the interstate, but on the trail, we needed something with “texture”. After checking out the grips on Andy’s Bonbler, we also picked up a set of black Renegade Grips from Biltwell. Considering the nature of woods riding, a set of Bark Busters was about a given; after some recent spills, it’s also nice to find your levers still intact after a crash landing. Keeping with that theme, the 883 doesn’t have quite the same punch as the plus size sporty, so we decided to beef up the low-end grunt with a few extra teeth on the rear sprocket.


How Does It Ride

Freshly minted, Friday morning at March Moto Madness I took “Ripley” up the hill for the first time. I was immediately amazed by the difference a 21-inch front wheel makes when carving through the dirt. The old carburated Harley mill is also content to lug around tight switchbacks and obstacles without protest. Having scrambled up the same hill on my Trumpet, there’s no denying that the extra 3-inches of suspension travel makes for a more comfortable ride.

Per my comments above, Ripley also followed her (half) sister Rosie down Deal’s Gap for the Dragon Raid last fall. Tropical Storm Gordon and Hurricane Florence dampened the riding opportunities, but we still managed to scramble the mountain byways and a few of the local forest roads. On the asphalt, a scrambled Sporty starts to live up to its name; with the extra ground clearance, I had blast throwing the bars down in the corners and riding The Tail of the Dragon on a beefy Harley super-moto. When the pavement ended, the big twin was still right at home hustling around the gravel roads between Robbinsville and Tellico Plains.

I’ve obviously hustled my portly Triumph through some trails where it has no business. The Harley is a much different beast than the otherwise low-slung Triumph. With the long-travel suspension, the Harley is taller, and with that, I admit the weight “feels” higher. In reality, the Sportster weight just over 460 pounds in running order; a good 40 pounds lighter than the Scrambler. The Harley, however, is narrower, and unquestionably more forgiving when crossing rocks, ledges, and pot-hole riddled fire roads.

Future Plans

Despite having the bike in running order for almost a year now, Jeff and I have unfortunately been tied up with a lot of extenuating circumstances. We had enough seat time to decide we needed a little more “punch” to handle the mud and steep grades of the DBBB, but haven’t had enough time to sit down and really hammer out the suspension settings to get things as plush as we want them. That gearing situation might be unnecessary if the 883 had a little carb work, or potentially an upgrade to a 1200 big bore kit; time will tell.

Along with considering the upgrade to 1200 cc’s, we’ve discussed the possibility of installing a Rekluse clutch. I took a short ride on the HD2 Enduro at MMM, There’s no denying it’s a lot easier to handle a big bike off-road when there’s less concern about stalling the bike, just as there’s no denying that the 1200 Sporty has more “oomph”. A Rekluse clutch is slick kit, but it’s not cheap, and in the end, might not be necessary for the riding we plan to do. Fuel is also a problem for the older 883, with the stock peanut tank, 100 miles is about max range. We could hunt down the larger sporty tank from the Super Low, but we’re still daydreaming about possibly figuring out how to mount an IMS, Safari, or Acerbis aftermarket tank to the Sporty frame. I’ve caught a few odd photos of that setup on Advrider, but I’ve yet to find any firm details on what fits.

Suspension and “propulsion” are obviously the big tickets items, but we have a few other odds and ends on our to-do list. I have considered taking Ripley to Conserve The Ride this spring; unless I suddenly decide to rent a trailer, that means we need to get a luggage mounting system sorted out. Stock Harley levers are also meant for more hamfisted inputs, something I don’t recommend when riding off-road; thus we’re shopping for the best lever alternatives without having to switch out the stock Harley switchgear. We obviously love the high-pipes, and the Hugo headers are tucked in pretty well compared to the British alternative. However, after seeing the HD2 Enduro in the flesh, we’re both pretty enamored with the idea of a 2-into-1 SuperTrapp replacing the traditional Harley slip-ons.

Assuming we aren’t bathed with another year of record-setting rainfall, and pending any more family emergencies, I’m hoping to spend more time getting the Dirtster dialed in this summer. I’ve been toying with the idea of shooting a DBBB “promo” bit for the MotoADVR YouTube channel, certainly, a mud-slathered Sportster will raise a few eyebrows. Stay tuned…


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17 Responses to Harley Dirtster Project: Stage 1

  1. Wrongway says:

    Are you taunting me?


  2. Bob says:

    Nice upgrade to a pretty much useless street bike. Looks great!


  3. Jason Tackett says:

    I’ve sent messages and emails and have never gotten a reply


  4. Jason Tackett says:

    When will it be available


  5. Junglebiker says:

    Hugo Moto seems to be out of business already. That didn’t last long. Wonder what the problem was? More importantly, is there any chance that some other company will take up the slack? I work in Papua New Guinea and I just recently picked up a ’98 883 that really needs Hugo Moto style help in order to really be useful to me here.


    • Drew Faulkner says:

      There are other manufacturers out there that make similar parts, but they’re not the one-stop-shop that Hugo was. Foot pegs and wheels are probably the biggest obstacle. Foot peg relocation kits are out there (pretty sure Hugo copied someone else’s design), Woody’s Wheel Works is the best wheel option in the US, not sure what you have in your locale. If you have spoked wheels, someone knowledgeable should be able to relace something for you with stock hubs.


  6. Pingback: Harley-Davidson Is Doing It Wrong | Moto Adventurer

  7. Chris says:

    What sidestand are you using?


    • MotoADVR says:

      Hey Chris,

      That side-stand is integrated with the left peg relocation bracket. It’s all custom from Hugo Moto, who unfortunately is not in business anymore.


  8. Pino says:

    Have any more info on the rear suspension setup? Trying to figure suspension out for my build and would love to get some feedback on yours.

    Liked by 1 person

    • MotoADVR says:

      Hey Pino, my buddy Jeff went through settings and made a small adjustment to the air-gap for the fork oil and the front is really good now. He also tinkered with the shock settings and I think the bike it just about perfect at this stage. Our first experiences were harsh mostly because of the settings.


      • Pino says:

        We’re the rear shocks part of the Hugo kit or were they custom order? Trying to find a decent set of shocks to get like 7-9” rear travel and don’t want to spend 1500 bucks lol.

        Liked by 1 person

      • MotoADVR says:

        They were part of the Hugo Kit. They’re CME brand, 17.5” eye to eye. I believe they’re snowmobile shocks but not 100% sure. Unfortunately short of buying a set Biltwell Stilettos or Progressive shocks you’re probably gonna spend $800 or more.


      • MotoADVR says:

        Sorry, EMC shocks. They’re french.


      • Pino says:

        Yeah 800 would be manageable- it’s too bad Hugo couldn’t persist beyond the first year. Their kit is great! Thanks for the info!!


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